Liquor License Controversy in CB 8
By Akosua K. Albritton
In the past 15 years, Central Brooklyn has seen significant changes in the demographics of its neighborhoods. Commercial strips such as Fulton Street, Washington Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Nostrand Avenue and Kingston Avenue have gone from being filled with “bodegas”, produce stands, barber/hair salons, discount stores, pharmacies, fabric stores, take-outs and storefront churches to bars, eat-in restaurants, gourmet delis and boutiques.
Bars and lounges offer great returns for the shop owners due to one bottle of wine or bottle of bourbon fills the glasses of several customers. It’s worth the few thousand dollars to apply for a beer and wine license and later, graduate to a full liquor license. Then add karaoke or amateur night and you have customers serving as free entertainment.
So neighborhoods like Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Clinton Hill find themselves facing the same oversaturation of bars on certain streets as found in Williamsburg. That changing face of the commercial strip can be managed so that a diversity of businesses exists.
Change is one thing that people can depend upon. The question is does one get swept away in the change or do you recognize the shift and, therefore, manage it.
Brooklyn Community Board No. 8 (CB 8), which covers Prospect Heights, northern Crown Heights and historic Weeksville, receives so many requests for NYS Liquor Authority (SLA) license recommendations that the SLA and Sidewalk Café Review Committee (SLAC) was established in 2009, distinct from the Economic Development Committee. The Committee Chair James Ellis contends while bars and lounges can’t be prohibited from being opened, certain conditions can be required to get approval from CB 8.
There are the 200-Foot Rule and 500-Foot Rule that should be enforced. The 200-Foot Rule involves ensuring an establishment serving alcohol is at least 200 feet away from buildings exclusively used as schools or houses of worship that are on the same street or avenue. The 500-Foot Rule curtails oversaturation in that there are restrictions on the approval of certain on-premises liquor licenses if the location is within a 500-foot radius of certain other establishments with on-premises liquor licenses. There are exceptions to this rule. For those details, the reader is directed to sections 64, 64-a, 64-c and 64-d of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law.
The community board ought to request a report of misdemeanors and felonies for the address and bar owner from the local police precinct. For example, not adhering to occupancy limits or sufficient security-to-customer ratios creates an unsafe environment.
These commercial corridors are surrounded by residences. The owners and managers must be mindful of the needs of households. Mr. Ellis has gotten SLA license seekers to agree to close by 2:00 AM as opposed to 4:00 AM, institute sound-proofing measures, particularly where the bar or restaurant has a backyard. Further, hiring from within the community is stipulated.
One nuisance that neighborhood people complain about is the vomit found on the sidewalks. Therefore, sanitizing the sidewalks in front of the bars, lounges or restaurants of such waste within a specified time period may be another stipulation for approval from the community board.
CB 8 District Manager Michelle George and her staff of Julia Neale, Community Associate and Melanie Grant, Community Assistant, are the first to handle these requests. Ms. George explained, “The number of [SLA] applications received each month can vary. Some months there can be as many as five or more new applications and ten renewals and other months [just] one new application and one or two renewals”.
Creating a welcoming environment for the bar/lounge sector while maintaining a comfortable neighborhood environment is an essential concern for an urban planner or neighborhood association. “We do have concerns over the impact of establishments that serve liquor and have sidewalk cafes and backyard spaces. That is why we try to set limits on the number of seats allowed and also restrict the hours of operation for the cafés and backyard spaces. We seek a happy medium between keeping our residents protected from noise and our businesses capable of being successful,” opines Ms. George.
There are cases where members of community boards do not like the style or cuisine of a business seeking a SLA license. Those preferences should not be considered in the committee or full board voting. It is a matter of taste that the business will either experience financial success or ruin. Rather than scoff at a legal business model, put skin in the game by opening a night spot that offers “just the right cuisine and ambiance” that have customers filling seats.
Monitoring after the evaluation process and enforcing the stipulations are required after a SLA license is approved. The stipulations’ efficacy is determined by the effort of the volunteer committee members, the paid community district office staff and concerned residents who are willing to call the district office about odious occurrences.